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The French mother navigating the capital in her own personal tuk-tuk

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Cecile’s used to getting her fair share of strange looks as female ‘barang’ who uses a tuk-tuk as her daily vehicle. Husain Haider

The French mother navigating the capital in her own personal tuk-tuk

French woman Cecile Dahome gracefully manoeuvres her tuk-tuk through the manic streets of Phnom Penh with the precision of a Japanese katana before a herd of motorcyclists, attempting to perform illegal U-turns, cuts her off.

The riders, like baby ducklings following their mother’s tracks, grant themselves right of way, bringing traffic to a standstill on Sisowath Quay.

“It’s times like these you wish you had those magic shells [as seen in computer game Mario Kart] to throw at people,” Cecile says in jest.

In fact, the 37-year-old likened the entire experience of driving a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh to “playing a game of Mario Kart”.

She bought her white, three-wheeled, four-stroke, Indian-made Bajaj Re Mk II straight from the showroom on the very week it became available in Cambodia nearly two and a half years ago.

While the MK II is certainly a step-up from its predecessor – with its increased storage capacity, the addition of a reverse gear and improved build quality – Cecile says her relationship with the tuk-tuk was initially very much a marriage of convenience.

The tuk-tuk, she says, is her third attempt at trying to secure a safe, environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to navigate the capital’s clogged and chaotic streets.

First, she had a bicycle, but Cecile says she quickly learned she couldn’t continue showing up to business meetings drenched in sweat.

Next, she and her husband bought scooters, but upon learning that she was pregnant, Cecile knew she had to find a safer way to get around the city that wouldn’t jeopardise the baby’s wellbeing.

A car wasn’t on the cards, says Cecile, not least due to the cost of purchasing and insuring one, as well as the time she would waste in Phnom Penh’s famously bad traffic jams and the negative environmental impact.

As the founder of Sevea Consulting – which assists NGOs and stakeholders on environmental, humanitarian and infrastructure projects meant to improve the livelihoods of everyday Cambodians, particularly those in rural communities – she says she couldn’t justify the environmental impact of having a car.

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“The initial intention was not to be a model [citizen], the initial intention was really security for my family. But after having driven it for two years now, I really think that it should be a way of commuting that should be more accepted by everyone … because it pollutes a lot less,” Cecile says of her liquefied petroleum gas-powered machine.

At a petrol station near Central Market, Cecile’s tidily groomed Pomeranian dog Lilou more closely resembles toy than beast as it basks in the attention of attendants and curious passersby who crane their necks to see what all the fuss is about.

The curiosity and crowds are an inevitable reality for Cecile; it isn’t everyday that a foreigner is seen at the pumps filling up a tuk-tuk, much less a woman.

Later on, at the corner of Sothearos and Sihanouk boulevards, a curious lady pulls her motorbike alongside Cecile’s tuk-tuk with a broad grin.

Moments earlier both women had been shopping at a nearby convenience store where the motorcyclist had snapped a picture of Lilou in the back seat with her mobile phone.

“Really? It’s yours?” asks the commuter while keeping an eye on the traffic lights.

Cecile says that this is one of her favourite things about driving a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh – the reaction from locals.

“Honestly, one of my favourite things about driving a tuk-tuk is the reaction from people . . . before we bought it we asked a bunch of people – locals [Cambodians], tuk-tuk drivers, foreigners as well – and everyone said it was just a great idea,” says Cecile.

“The interesting part is that I have both Cambodians and foreigners asking me ‘How much did I buy it for? Is it safe?’ When I tell them that I bought it for around $2,500 and it’s now [selling for] $3,500 — they really become quite interested.”

Beyond the convenience, safety and cost, Cecile also sees her tuk-tuk as a way of life and a message to others.

“It has become a way to show people that you can do things differently without having to compromise so much on your way of life.

“That’s my day-to-day job, convincing people that things need to change, but things cannot happen in one day. So how can you mitigate the impact of your day to day life? Driving a tuk-tuk actually is one!” she says.